Can the Subaltern Speak Summary by Gayatri Spivak


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak a postcolonial Theory calls herself “a practical Marxist feminist deconstructionist”. She discourages and dismantles western centres and challenges there over history and prejudice. She considers postmodernism as politically contradictory and ambivalent.

In the text “can the subaltern speak” she tries to overthrow the binary opposition between subject and object, self and other, Occident and Orient, center and marginal and the majority and minority.

She introduces the question of gender and sexual difference in the work. Subaltern according to Spivak is those who belong to third world countries. It is impossible for them to speak up as they are divided by gender, class, caste, region, religion and other narratives. These divisions do not allow them to stand up in unity.

Truth Construction

Spivak uses deconstruction to examine how true it is constructed. She takes the example of Sati. Sati was a practice among the Hindus in which a woman was burnt alive with the pyre of her dead husband.

When the British came to India they outlawed this practice. Though it saved a number of lives of women, it also helped the British to secure their rule in India.

Again the outlawing of this practice had a complete absence of Indian women’s voice. According to the British, “white men saved brown women from brown men.” This statement created a truth that Indians are barbarians and British on the other hand are civilized and hence their rules were justified over the Indians. Human conscious is constructed randomly. We do not construct our identities. We have them written for us.

Knowledge is Not Innocent

Spivak criticizes Foucault and Deleuze for committing ‘epistemic violence‘-that is projecting eurocentric knowledge on to the third world countries. She is of the view that Western Academic thinking is produced in order to support their economic interests. Thus the knowledge is like any other commodity that is exported from Europe to third world countries.

Knowledge is never innocent. It expresses the interest of its producer. This westernized knowledge tends to construct our identities and for the third world people, Europe becomes the ideal.

Criticism of Essentialist Ideology

Spivak uses Marxist ideology to criticize the leftists. According to her, the leftists essentialize the subalterns i.e. They consider the third world people to be same as one identity and same issues. It has 3 negative impacts on subalterns.

1. It provides an opportunity to make attempt from outside to reform subalterns i.e. It paves way for colonialism.
2. It provides a logocentric assumption of cultural unity among Heterogenous people.
3. The subalterns become dependent on the Western intellectuals to speak for their condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.

The Suicide of Bhubaneswari

In the end, Spivak brings to light the suicide of an ordinary woman to explain how outside effects the subaltern. According to her, Bhubaneswari Bhaduri ended her life because she did not want to participate in an association that she was assigned to commit.

However, after her death, her suicide was misinterpreted and her story was written by her family in a different way. They considered her suicide as an outcome of a failed love affair rather than a protest.

Thus Spivak concludes that it is impossible to reclaim and rewrite history in the Western framework as they construct truth for us as Bhubaneshwari’s family constructed for her and hence Subaltern cannot speak.